Sunday, January 5, 2014

Thoughts on ‘Twelfth Night’


A Viola Quartet (clockwise from upper left): Joan
Plowright (1969), Imogen Stubbs (1996), Felicity
Kendal (1980), Parminder Nagra (2003)

When discussing William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will, “realism” isn’t the first word to spring to mind.  The play is so chock-full of outlandish improbabilities — not the least of which is the female lead, Viola, successfully pretending to be a man — that one’s disbelief requires strong suspension.  But this story of gender confusion (and secondarily, that of an egotistical killjoy getting his comeuppance) is so rich with comic possibilities that we willingly turn off our balderdash filters and enjoy the revels.  However, this largely unserious play also raises some very serious questions about gender identity and gender ambiguity: Where does maleness end and femaleness begin, and vice versa?  On what do we base romantic and sexual attraction?  And to what degree might sexual identity be an artificial construct?  Still, despite these sharp questions being intrinsic to Shakespeare’s text, they are often blunted in performance by the unattainability of the play’s central conceit, which I’ll discuss later. For this reason, Twelfth Night’s utterly incredible story can be enhanced by a dose of credibility elsewhere in its production.

I hope that I don’t need to recount the story of Twelfth Night to anyone:

• how the young woman Viola shipwrecks on the shores of the fictional (in Shakespeare’s time) country of Illyria;

• how she disguises herself as a boy to act as go-between to a countess, Olivia, on behalf of the duke that Viola serves, Orsino;

• how Olivia rejects Orsino’s suit but falls in love with the disguised Viola, who is herself in love with Orsino but dares not tell him;

• how confusion erupts when Viola’s “identical” twin brother, Sebastian, appears and is mistaken for her, and contrariwise. 



No, this is not the kind of story that you would expect to be told by a history book or documentary film.  In fact, the goings-on get so far-fetched — such as Olivia marrying Sebastian before learning his name — that one of the play’s characters seems to wink at the audience by saying, “If this were played upon the stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction” (III.iv.126-27).  Perhaps because of this never-in-a-million-years story line — and its evoking topical issues of gender identity — Twelfth Night has become one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and most frequently performed plays, so much so that one New York theatre critic once called for a moratorium on its staging. 

So, I was surprised to discover that Twelfth Night was not made into an English-language feature film until Trevor Nunn’s enjoyable version in 1996.  Yes, there have been some television versions, and there was even a stagy, stilted Russian-language film adaptation in 1955.  However, unlike numerous other Shakespeare works — Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It — there was never any straightforward big-screen adaptation of Twelfth Night in Shakespeare’s own language until the last decade of the twentieth century.  Given the enormous popularity of the gender-bending comedy throughout the years of the talking motion picture’s existence, I thought this was a very curious state of affairs. 

‘Двенадцатая ночь’: A. Abramov and Jan Frid’s 1955 Russian film of ‘Twelfth Night’

Then it hit me:

Perhaps the biggest imaginative leap that an audience member of Twelfth Night needs to make is to accept the premise that a masculine-attired Viola — as “Cesario,” her male alter ego — and the vigorous soldier Sebastian can be mistaken for each other.  When casting an actress as Viola and an actor as Sebastian, as the play is usually cast, this effect is never achieved to a truly credible degree, although valiant attempts have been made.  The actress playing Viola will usually (and understandably) affect an androgynous appearance.  The play itself tells us that Viola hasn’t perfected her masculine masquerade when Orsino says to her:



[T]hey shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.  (I.iv.29-33)

By contrast, Sebastian is usually portrayed as more classically masculine.  In the productions that I’ve seen, Orsino’s speech would never be used to describe Sebastian.  The performers in the roles of the twins — by height or build or facial features — always look so different that the audience must suspend its disbelief yet again and accept that to the other characters in the play, Viola and Sebastian look identical (or in a more modernist reading, that those characters are mentally oblivious to the twins’ different appearances).  So, when one character says of the siblings, “An apple cleft in two is not more twin/Than these two creatures” (V.i.220-21), we don’t really believe him, and we must adjust how the two characters look in our mind’s eye to make them so.

The reunion of ‘identical’ twins Viola and Sebastian in the 1980 BBC production of ‘Twelfth Night’...

...and in the 1996 Trevor Nunn film.  Can you tell them apart?

Another casting strategy, one uniquely suited to film and television, is to fill the roles of Sebastian and Viola with the same performer and use a split screen to put the two characters in frame at the same time, when needed.  But in the productions of this kind that I’ve seen (including the 1955 Russian version), a single actress playing both Viola and Sebastian may achieve an androgynous appearance for the sister, but this mien doesn’t adequately reflect the brother’s aggressive and athletic qualities, such as his not shying away from a duel.  In the instances that I have seen, the double-cast performer — who was always an actress — doesn’t convincingly pull off Sebastian.  Cast either way, Twelfth Night’s scrambling of gender identity is somewhat muted because the audience is clearly aware of the sex of the thespians, so the issues of gender ambiguity inherent in the text don’t go as far as they could when performed.


The 1969 ITV production of ‘Twelfth Night’: Joan Plowright plays both Viola and Sebastian

As all Shakespeare enthusiasts know, the playwright resorted to putting his female protagonists in male attire in five of his 38 plays: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, and Twelfth Night.  And his English stage could successfully effectuate this contrivance because all of his female characters were played, in his lifetime, by boys dressed in female costume.  Consequently, Shakespeare’s original audiences first needed to accustom themselves to the convention of men playing women.  Once this was accomplished, accepting a boy playing a girl disguised as a boy must have been a piece of cake.  Of course, women now play women’s roles in mainstream entertainment, but a recent high-profile production of Twelfth Night was staged in both London and New York which, as in Shakespeare’s time, cast male actors in all of the roles.  By adopting the outdated Elizabethan convention, this production was able to boast a more passably identical Viola and Sebastian — and to give the gender issues more punch.
 
Samuel Barnett as Sebastian (left) and Johnny Flynn as Viola
in the 2012 Apollo Theatre all-male production 

of ‘Twelfe [sic] Night’ in London
Film’s foremost attribute, of course, is that it can replicate the world we live in with intricate exactitude.  Throughout the decades, motion-picture film and equipment have evolved to capture the world with increasing veracity: sound on film, faster film stocks, location filming, etc.  This sense of “realism” — or as academics like to say, “naturalism” — is the mainstream of feature films (although movies heavily reliant on computer-generated effects are now giving it a run for its money), so much so that anything artificial-looking, anything not in keeping with the sense of verisimilitude established by the movie, tends to have the undesirable result of taking us out of the story, however momentarily.

Why hasn’t there been an English-language feature film of Twelfth Night before 1996?  Because, it seems to me, the imaginative leap needed to accept Viola and Sebastian as identical — or to accept an actress as Sebastian or actor as Viola — is too great to make for mainstream cinema audiences, audiences accustomed to a greater amount of verisimilitude in their movies.  One may argue that an audience for a film in iambic pentameter isn’t exactly “mainstream” in the first place (and this may be why Nunn’s movie was distributed in the U.S. as a niche “independent” film), but one comes to a theatrical feature expecting an engagement with a more verisimilitudinous world than one would expect in a stage play.  Why commit to realism-biased film a play utterly dependent on a convention that works better on the stage?  (To illustrate my point: imagine how disastrous Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game [1992] would have been if the audience could have told from the start that the transvestite character was male.)  I’m sure that a few movie producers asked themselves that question when contemplating a Twelfth Night feature. 

Historically, television has functioned as a medium “in between” the cinema and the theatre: its smaller image size and its place inside the home allow for the intimacy of a small stage, while its faithful reproduction of the outside world rivals the naturalism of the big screen. On television, stage conventions, such as the ersatz “identicality” of Viola and Sebastian, are more readily accepted.  For this reason, television has been more conducive to productions of Twelfth Night: the Internet Movie Database lists more than 20 TV productions of the Shakespeare play since 1939.  So, it’s no wonder that Twelfth Night has thrived on the small screen, while it went missing from the big screen.  (However, with today’s wall-sized sets and high-definition images, TV’s historically “in-between” status may be changing into something closer to the feature film.) 


From the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production in New York:
One of these two is Anne Hathaway as Viola, and the other is
Stark Sands as Sebastian.  Can you tell which is which?

All of this is a very long way of introducing my main thought: with today’s advances in special effects and make-up, I’m surprised that no filmmaker has challenged him- or herself to make a Twelfth Night movie where Viola and Sebastian are believably (but not necessarily totally) identical to each other.  I would like to see a film, preferably on the big screen, where I can believe that Viola-as-“Cesario” would be reasonably mistaken for Sebastian and vice versa.  And I would like to see this done in a way in which the viewer never forgets that within the world of the work — whatever the filmmaker’s reality might be — Viola is a woman disguised as a man.  In other words, I don’t want “Cesario” to resemble Sebastian so completely that I forget an unknowing Olivia is pursuing a woman in disguise.  And if the filmmaker chose to cast both twins with the same performer, CGI, given the visual miracles that they can create, would be able to pair two images of the single thespian in ways unavailable to a mere split screen: Viola and Sebastian helping each other when their ship wrecks, narrowly missing each other on the street, embracing each other in the last act, and so on.

If a Twelfth Night film could make Sebastian and “Cesario” truly alike in appearance, that would make the play’s already perceptive questions about gender identity more pointed: these questions would be harder to answer without the reassuring presence of a clearly feminine “Cesario.”  How many film- and theatre-goers attend a performance of Twelfth Night to see its sexual issues put into play — because they still nag our historically heteronormative culture — all the while believing that these issues have already been safely resolved because Viola-as-“Cesario” is so patently played by a woman and Sebastian by a man?  Or because the same inadequately masculinized actress (or inadequately feminized actor) is obviously performing both roles via easily discernible special effects?  Such perennial flaws in enactments of Twelfth Night, I believe, undercut the importance and urgency of the gender issues so central to the written play, issues that would be more visibly unsettled and unsettling without these flaws.  In other words, this highly unbelievable story’s more serious aspects could be greatly enriched by making the identicality of Sebastian and “Cesario” more believable. 

But would the typical Shakespeare audience (perhaps unlike the one for the recent all-male production) go for this?  Maybe most Shakespeare fans like Twelfth Night precisely because its explosive questions about gender are defused by the audience’s ability to tell Viola-as-“Cesario” from Sebastian.  How many watch productions of the play expecting and enjoying a clear and comforting sexual dissimilarity between the brother and his sister’s alter ego?  How many relish a sense of superiority to the other characters in the play because these spectators can readily tell the twins apart?  If the answer is “a lot,” the incisive interrogation of gender and sexual identity within Twelfth Night, despite the play’s many productions over the centuries, has yet to be fully realized in performance.  


From the Los Angeles Drama Club:
Okay, that’s another way to do it, I guess.

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